Cuba’s informal market finds new space in the growing internet

Messages roll in like waves in a Telegram group chat.

“I need liquid ibuprofen and acetaminophen please,” wrote one user. “It is urgent, it is for my 10-month-old baby.”

Others offer drugs imported from outside of Cuba and add, “Message me directly.” Emoji-stained lists include antibiotics, pregnancy tests, vitamins, rash creams, and more.

The group message, which includes 170,000 people, is just one of many that have flourished in Cuba in recent years alongside the exponential growth of Internet use on the communist-ruled island.

The informal sale of everything from eggs to car parts – the country’s so-called black market – is a long-standing practice in crisis-hit Cuba, where access to basic goods such as milk, chicken, medicine and cleaning products is perpetual. was limited. The market is technically illegal, but according to official views, the extent of illegality can vary depending on the type of items sold and how they are obtained.

Before the Internet, such exchanges took place “through your contacts, your neighbors, your local community,” says Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and economics fellow at the American University in Washington. “But now you can connect to the entire state through the Internet.”

With shortages and the worst economic turmoil in years, the online market has “exploded,” Torres said.

Loud WhatsApp groups discuss an unofficial exchange rate that provides more pesos to the dollar or euro than the official bank rate.

Meanwhile, Cuban versions of Craigslist — sites like Revolico, the island’s first digital buying and selling tool — advertise everything from electric bicycles imported from other countries to “capitalist apartments” in Havana’s wealthy districts.

Many products are sold in pesos, but higher-priced products are often denominated in dollars, with payments made either in cash or by bank transfer outside the country.

While wealthier Cubans — or those with families who send money from abroad — can afford more luxurious items, many essentials remain out of reach for people like Leonardo, a government engineer who asked that his real name not be used for fear of government reprisals. .

Three months ago, Leonardo started buying things like inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends in other countries, which he then resold online for a small profit. Government authorities are cracking down on such “buyers” or resellers, especially those who buy products in Cuban stores and sell them at high prices.

In late October, President Miguel Diaz-Canel called for a crackdown on the practice, calling traffickers “criminals, fraudsters, bribe-takers, lazy and corrupt.”

“What we cannot allow is that those who don’t work, don’t contribute and break the law earn more and have more opportunities to live well than those who actually contribute,” he said during a meeting with government officials. “If we did that … we would violate the concepts of socialism.”

But Leonardo said he and others like him are just trying to get by.

“This medicine is given to those who need it, people with respiratory problems,” he said. “The people who use them are the people who really need them. … We sell more antibiotics than anything else.”

With the money earned from the sale, Leonardo was able to buy soap and food for his elderly parents, as well as antibiotics and vitamins.

The rise of new digital markets speaks to a special brand of creative resilience that Cubans have developed during decades of economic turmoil. Much of the crisis is the result of the US government’s six-decade trade embargo on the island, but critics say it is also due to the government’s mismanagement of the economy and unwillingness to include the private sector.

As such, people on the island tend to be highly skilled at making do with whatever they have – think of the vintage cars from the 1950s that still ply the streets thanks to ingenuity and spare parts mechanics to solve the shortage of new vehicles.

Entrepreneurs used the same creativity to overcome initially very limited internet access. Carlos Xavier Peña and Hiram Centelles, Cuban immigrants living in Spain, founded Revolico in 2007 to “alleviate the hardships of life in Cuba.”

To accommodate the island’s slow internet, they kept the site design as simple as Craigslist. But in 2008—the same year the government lifted its ban on the sale of personal computers—it blocked access to Revolico. The ban remained in effect until 2016. Meanwhile, Peña and Centelles used digital tools and various host sites to bypass the firewall.

The site was still difficult for many to use, however, given the lack of mobile internet.

In 2008, Heriberto, a university student, was able to access it through a small monthly internet package given to him by the school. Others asked friends and relatives to buy things for them while they were at work because they sometimes had access to the Internet.

“Here, the markets often don’t have what you’re looking for,” said Heriberto, now 33, who asked that only his name be used because he fears government influence. “So you develop a habit of looking first at the store. Then when they don’t have it, you look at Revolico.”

Sales on WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram really took off in 2018, when Cubans got internet access on their phones, something Torres of American University described as a “game changer.”

According to the International Telecommunication Union, between 2000 and 2021, the number of Cubans using the Internet increased from less than 1% of the population to 71%. The internet has been a lifeline for Heriberto and many other Cubans during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

Now, while tourism, the island’s main economic sector, is still recovering, many have built entire businesses on selling goods online — both basic necessities like medicine and many high-priced specialty products. Heriberto recently used the site to sell his mountain bike, which he priced in dollars.

Revolico co-founder Centelles says the site and similar tools have evolved to adapt to an ever-changing Cuba. For example, sales of power generators and rechargeable batteries have skyrocketed due to power outages on the island.

Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution who tracks Internet use in Cuba, said government officials said the Internet was important to the country’s economic development, but it was met with “reluctant acceptance.”

“They’ve never been able to control the Internet in many ways,” Wirtschafter said.

Perhaps the clearest example came in 2021, when mass protests erupted thanks to communications that spread rapidly on social media sites including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Telegram. The government blocked many major social media and messaging sites for several days to prevent the protests from spreading.

Although Leonardo says he considers selling on Telegram risky, “in the end you need medicine… so you take that risk.”

Heriberto still uses Revolico, but he said he now prefers sites like Facebook that offer a level of anonymity. On those sites, he can sell using a fake profile, unlike Revolico, which requires you to post your phone number.

“It’s a basic necessity right now,” Heriberto said. “The Internet has arrived in Cuba and is now mainstream.”

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